Special Report

Doing Whatever It Takes

By Julie A. Miller — January 08, 1998 14 min read

The day starts at E.J. Scott Elementary School with an old-fashioned ritual given a modern twist. Two students, wearing blue-and-white school uniforms, preside over the morning announcements.

But they do not speak over a scratchy public-address system. They deliver the Scott Morning News from an anchor desk, via a system that beams their image into the school’s 28 classrooms.

Teachers here can use that same system to show 4th graders a video about coral reefs, or to assemble several classes in the school’s technology center to watch a live broadcast of a motivational speaker aiming to enhance their self-esteem.

But while the 41,000-a-year system would make a dazzling centerpiece for any school’s table, technology as such is not this school’s claim to fame, or even the main course of the mostly traditional educational repast it serves up.

The satellite system and computer lab--like the students’ uniforms--are just items in the toolbox, a few of the elements Principal Artice D. Hedgemon and her staff have assembled to support their overriding goal: boosting the performance of their 450 students, virtually all of whom come from disadvantaged families.

“They may be doing a lot of things, but everything is very much focused on getting students to achieve at high levels,” says Joseph F. Johnson Jr., the director of school improvement initiatives for the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the co-author of a 1997 study that looked at the common characteristics of Scott and 25 other high-poverty schools that were among the relatively few schools to win recognition under Texas’ accountability system in 1995.

“Schools at more modest levels might be focused on improving their access to technology for its own sake,” he says, “whereas at Scott, technology was implemented as a vehicle for implementing the overall academic program.”

From the outside, E.J. Scott is a typical one-story cinder block school building, circa 1959.

What makes it noteworthy--the subject of research reports and an oft-cited success story among Texas school reformers--is how well its staff has used teamwork, determination, and a relentless focus on the primary goal to forge familiar ideas into a package that, by all accounts, shows results.

The school is in most ways a model of the kinds of initiative and attitude that researchers say are common to high-poverty urban schools that succeed against the odds.

Scott Elementary sits amid small homes in a poor neighborhood in the northeast corner of Houston, circumscribed by freeways and industry.

A majority of the boxy, one-story frame houses are well-kept, but others are in bad shape, with their foundations sagging, shingles missing, and trash strewn about the yards. Many have bars on the windows. The only businesses nearby are bars, a small grocery, and a couple of fast-food restaurants.

Statistics paint a bleak picture of the neighborhood. In 1990, the median family income was less than $12,000, according to U.S. Census figures. More than 40 percent of families had income below the federal poverty line, and the child-poverty rate was 43 percent.

More than 20 percent of the housing in the area was vacant. Fewer than half the residents over 19 were employed, and about 63 percent of those over 25 lacked a high school diploma. Nearly two in 10 households received public-assistance income.

Scott’s student population is about 60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent black. Teachers say the Hispanic population has grown steadily over the past decade in what was once an almost entirely black neighborhood. More than a third of the students here are classified as having limited proficiency in English.

Despite these troubling statistics, Scott is one of only 680 Texas schools--out of more than 6,300 campuses--to earn an “exemplary” rating in 1996-97 by having at least 90 percent of their students pass each section of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills tests. The state average for the elementary grades ranged from 72 percent to 79 percent.

One characteristic most successful schools, especially those that have overcome severe challenges, have in common is a strong leader, and Artice Hedgemon is clearly a key to Scott’s success.

Though her style is professionally immaculate without a hint of flash, she commands attention. When she walks through the halls, children reach out to her as if she were a celebrity. “Good morning Ms. Dr. Hedgemon,” one little girl says.

This is Ms. Hedgemon’s eighth year at Scott. Before coming to Houston, the 50-year-old administrator was an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of the District of Columbia and a public school teacher in the nation’s capital. She came to Texas after her husband, an aerospace engineer, landed a job here. She taught in an outdoor-education program in the district before landing a principal’s job.

“She never lowers her standards,” says Eleanor Jackson, a 3rd grade teacher here, “but she applies the same standards to everyone.”

And Ms. Hedgemon’s primary standard is that all students are expected to succeed. Teachers are not to make excuses for them because they are disadvantaged--a policy that researchers say is the core philosophy of every successful high-poverty school.

“We have high expectations for all our children,” says Maudie Jordan, who teaches 5th and 6th grade science. “We don’t look at this area and say, ‘You’re going to have problems because of where you are.’”

Teachers who have been here throughout Ms. Hedgemon’s tenure say that staff members who didn’t like her approach eventually left, a pattern researchers have found in many successful schools.

“I made it clear from the start that it’s unacceptable to refer to the status of the students as if disadvantage were a handicapping condition,” the principal says. “There was never any resistance vocalized, but I felt it sometimes.”

Though she runs a tight ship, Ms. Hedgemon is not an autocrat. Teachers say they’re consulted on everything from curriculum to room assignments. Indeed, the first thing Scott teachers say about their school inevitably is how much they appreciate being part of a decisionmaking team.

The teachers agree each year on the staffing plan. Sometimes, teachers stay with a class for two years--a process known as looping. Others have evolved team-teaching arrangements. In the 5th and 6th grades, teachers specialize in a subject.

Teachers also say the school’s culture encourages them to work together.

“We’re not afraid to share resources,” Ms. Jordan says. “We’re also not afraid to say to each other, “Such and such student isn’t doing well, we need to talk about it.’”

The teachers decide among themselves what sort of professional development will be most helpful, and sometimes assign teachers to pursue a course of inquiry on behalf of the whole staff. “If there’s something good going on out there, some teacher is going to scout it out and bring it back,” says Jerrilean Johnson McQueen, who teaches language arts in 5th and 6th grade.

The school does not operate under an overarching program; its curriculum and mix of instructional methods are eclectic. For example, Scott teachers use a mixture of phonics and whole-language approaches to teaching reading. They also weave writing instruction and practice into every day’s lessons.

But collegiality and a willingness to experiment don’t mean a lack of structure. In fact, the staff is engaged in “just about constant planning,” Ms. Hedgemon says.

A blueprint lays out specific instructional targets for each week. For example, it might call for addressing prefixes and suffixes in language arts, and sentence structure might be that week’s writing skill. “The whole school focuses on the same objective at different levels of difficulty and with different methods,” the principal adds.

That planning is informed by constant feedback from teachers’ own evaluations and the all-important TAAS results. “We are constantly reviewing where we are and what we need to work on,” says Leola Griggs, the school’s teacher coordinator.

This reliance on objective feedback is another vein that researchers say runs through successful schools.

“They have a relentless focus on outcomes,” says Samuel L. Stringfield, a researcher at the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who has made studies of successful high-poverty elementary schools a focus of his career. “You have to settle on a reasonably accurate measure of what you want to do and use that data nigh on religiously.”

At Scott Elementary and other Texas schools, the TAAS is more than an internal feedback mechanism, however. It is the yardstick by which schools are measured by state official. , and also to a great extent by the public. Failure is embarrassing, and serious failure can result in intervention by the district or even the state. With stakes that high, it is not surprising that preparing for the test consumes a lot of attention, especially in schools that might not expect to do well otherwise.

At Isaacs Elementary, another high-achieving school a few blocks away from Scott, virtually the entire curriculum is geared toward the TAAS. References to “TAAS objectives” are visible in every classroom, and Principal Leon Pettis acknowledges that the results weigh heavily in how he judges teachers.

Scott is not as obviously and wholeheartedly focused on test preparation, but the presence of the state assessment is still palpable. On a recent day, each blackboard carried the notation: “Today’s TAAS skills: composition, sentence construction.”

There’s a home-grown comic book called “The Adventures Of TAAS Man.” The school even holds pep rallies to fire students up before testing.

“We want to get kids excited about being tested,” Ms. Hedgemon says. Not only does it ensure that they take the test seriously, she explains, but it also makes the test “a motivational tool, a source of pride.”

Another trait that distinguishes successful high-poverty schools is an aggressive effort to seek out additional means of support--financial and other. The television and computer equipment for the satellite broadcast system, for example, arrived three years ago after Scott Elementary School landed a federal technology grant.

Scott’s leading partnership is with the downtown law firm of Baker and Botts. The firm was looking for a school to adopt, and linked up with Scott in 1990 through a districtwide program that supports such partnerships. The firm sponsor special events, such as a drug-awareness week and a teacher-appreciation day, provides treats for children during the winter holidays, and arrange for local judges to preside over the 6th grade graduation. Baker and Botts also mounts fund-raisers and helps foot the bill for particular needs, such as stocking the library.

“Eight years ago, if you walked into this library, most of the shelves would have been empty,” says Brenda Reed, one of the firm’s liaisons to the school, sweeping her arm past shelf after shelf of books and videotapes.

One of the firm’s most important contributions is a tutoring program, in which about 25 employees regularly work with 2nd graders. Another 15 or 20 tutors help out each year when the school is preparing for the TAAS.

Parent involvement is a big part of the program at most successful schools, and Scott is no exception. The staff works at making parents comfortable, and will even knock on doors to flush out a reluctant parent.

“We’ve tried to help parents accept ownership of this school,” Principal Hedgemon says.

Outside her office, several parents wait to see staff members. More parents are on hand in the cafeteria, clearing up after the breakfast crowd, while others serve as volunteer aides in classrooms or the library. Another group of parents--almost half of them men--is taking a citizenship course in the school’s parent center.

“The settlers at Plymouth were called what? Pilgrims,” says teacher Andrea Russell, as about a dozen parents, some with toddlers on their laps, sound out the unfamiliar word.

‘We’re dealing with a lot of young parents who may have had bad experiences with school,” says Ms. Jordan, the science teacher. “Some of them may come in hostile, but they don’t go out that way. We create an environment where parents are comfortable.”

Educators here say the commitment to parent involvement extends not only to students’ academic needs, but their social requirements as well.

“Parents come to us with problems, and we try to find resources,” Ms. Hedgemon says. “We find clothing, help parents register to vote, work to get abandoned homes knocked down if they are dangerous to kids, and pester the city government to cut weeds down in lots where they’ve grown too high.”

Two years ago, Scott’s efforts to address the extracurricular needs of students and parents took a leap forward when the school became one of 40 in Houston to add two full-time counselors through Communities in Schools, a nonprofit organization launched in New York City in 1979 as a dropout-prevention program.

When Baker and Botts representatives “asked what is the one thing I would want for the school if I had more money, I said it was a CIS involvement,” Ms. Hedgemon says.

The counselors help children and parents with personal problems and refer them to available services. The $100,000 annual cost of the operation is paid partly by CIS, partly by Baker and Botts, and partly with funding from Title I, the federal program designed to aid poor students.

“We were just scratching the surface at best compared to what [the CIS counselors] can do,” Ms. Hedgemon says. “They can make the rounds of food pantries, go to churches for donated clothing, take parents to pay a bill. We can’t leave campus unless we do it on weekends and after school.”

Are successful high-poverty schools alike? Yes and no, researchers say. Some characteristics show up time after time: high standards for all children, the constructive use of test scores and other data, willingness to do whatever it takes to meet students’ needs, strong parental involvement, and a commitment to a program or vision that includes goals and the means to reach them. But curricula and methodology come in a variety of flavors.

“In deciding what to use, people were less focused on rhetoric and political debates and more on what they perceived worked with their children,” says Mr. Johnson of the University of Texas.

And not all successful schools are run by an unusually dynamic principal, he adds.

“In some cases, there was a group of teachers who really had the vision of what the school could be and a principal who was smart enough to stay out of the way,” he explains. “The principal doesn’t have to be some kind of charismatic leader, but has to believe the school can become a place where kids achieve at high levels and have a clue as to what it will take to get there.”

Mr. Stringfield, who has studied many different programs designed for disadvantaged children, believes schools are most likely to succeed using a tested, “packaged” approach, such as the Comer Child Development Program created by Yale University psychiatrist James P. Comer; the Accelerated Schools program; one of the New American Schools models; or the Success For All program developed by Robert E. Slavin, a colleague at Johns Hopkins.

“I think it makes a good deal of sense to choose something that is known to work rather than to try home brewing,” Mr. Stringfield says. Such an approach can reduce the need for an exceptional leader, he adds. “I don’t think we can base a national school improvement strategy on individual heroism.”

Mr. Johnson agrees that such models can work well when they are matched to the needs of a school and its staff. He says several schools in the Texas study used some of the more successful models, but notes that they adapted the programs to their specific needs.

“The schools I’ve seen that were using Success For All and not getting good results were the ones where teachers would say, ‘We did it that way because that’s what the program says to do.’”

Though many experts agree that the best way to replicate success is with proven reform models, Scott Elementary’s achievements--and those of several other high-poverty schools in Houston--came under very different conditions.

The emphasis in Texas is on local decisionmaking and test-based accountability. Similarly, the Houston district emphasizes efforts to move authority from the central office to regional divisions. That emphasis, Ms. Hedgemon says, “is one of the things that enabled us to put our program in place.” As for the state testing program, she says it gives her school a mechanism for focusing its efforts. Mr. Johnson goes further, contending that the state accountability program has been a pivotal factor in “giving schools the impetus to do something about their failures.”

That idea is hardly without controversy, however. Critics of so-called high-stakes testing note that it causes some school to place overwhelming emphasis on preparing for the tests, effectively narrowing the curriculum to a pinpoint.

“Accountability is necessary but not sufficient,” Mr. Stringfield says. “The goal is to transform the school into an organization focused on the academic task with a method for getting there. It can’t be done by mandate. It has to be done one school at a time.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week as Doing Whatever It Takes